By the numbers, the European Union is a giant. Its economy exceeds China’s by $7 trillion and is just a bit smaller than America’s $20 trillion. Russia? Its GDP of $ 1.7 trillion is petty cash. On paper, the EU nations marshal as many soldiers as does the United States, and half a million more than Russia. Their combined population dwarfs both. But if one measures by its weight in world affairs, Europe is a runt.
It does not play in the superpower league, and it does not muster the will to do so, no matter how splendiferous the rhetoric of “self-reliance” and “self-assertion.” The cause is rooted in postwar history. Europe was shattered and had to rebuild, and so came to rely for its existential safety on the United States. At the height of the Cold War, up to 300,000 U.S. troops, backed up by thousands of tactical nuclear weapons, stood guard at the Iron Curtain. Then at the end of the last century, its deadly foe, the Soviet Union, simply vanished, committing suicide on Christmas Day 1991 and leaving behind Russia and 14 orphan republics.
Europe was now “whole and free,” as George H.W. Bush famously proclaimed, and life was sweet. Why dabble in power politics when history had ended, when capitalism and democracy were on a roll? For the next 25 years, the nations of the EU cashed in their peace dividends, whittling their armies down to the core. Europe now gloried in its avant-garde role as a “civilian power” or “power of peace.”
Take Germany, Europe’s largest economy and the world’s fourth-largest. After the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago, the forces of the reunited country were cut by two-thirds. Its 2,800 tanks dwindled to 280. Today, its navy has six U-boats, none of which is operational. When Europe acts, it does so behind the United States, as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Serbia, and Libya or, if alone, out of real harm’s way, as in Mali.
The halcyon days are over. Europe confronts new threats aplenty. Indeed, at no time since the birth of European integration in 1952 has the Old Continent faced so many perils all at once, inside and out.
lotting to restore Russia’s grandeur, Vladimir Putin is pressing on Europe from the east. He gobbled up Crimea, then sliced off Ukraine’s southeast with his local surrogates. A new round of confrontation is unfolding in the Sea of Azov, where the Russians intercepted three Ukrainian naval vessels late last year, foreshadowing the blockade of Mariupol, Ukraine’s third-busiest port.
Putin’s purpose is to strangle Ukraine until it submits to Moscow’s imperial ambitions. The Nord Stream gas pipelines between Russia and Germany (one is completed, the other under construction) are designed to tighten the noose on Kiev, circumventing Ukraine by pumping gas directly across the Baltic Sea. Dutifully protesting, Europe has neither the means nor the will to defend Ukraine, and economic sanctions are not popular. The three Baltic states, formerly Soviet possessions, are not amused. Though they are NATO and EU members, the Baltics might be the next victims of Russian hauteur.
From the south, Europe is besieged by vast civilian armies. North Africa is the EU’s Mexico, serving as springboard for potentially millions of African migrants in search of a better life. Muslim refugees from the Mideast keep streaming into highly regulated economies that are far less equipped than the United States to absorb “tired, poor, and huddled masses.” High minimum wages and barriers to market entry undercut the greatest advantage of immigrants throughout the ages, which is their willingness to work more for less. New York’s all-night Korean markets would run afoul of mandated shop-closing hours throughout the European Union.
The pace of assimilation in Europe keeps lagging behind the rate of immigration. The market for anti-immigrant parties is booming. With the great exception of Spain, they have captured seats in all of the Continent’s parliaments; in seven countries, foremost among them Italy and Austria, they co-govern or vote with the ruling coalition. Europe’s traditional parties are losing out to the extremes. The moral of this tale: A munificent welfare state and open borders of the kind initially welcomed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 do not for a happy marriage make. They spawn resentment, envy, and cultural pushback.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump is muscling in with his trade wars against the EU. He thinks that Uncle Sam has been suckered into protecting wealthy free riders who have outsourced their security to the United States. Shape up, or we ship out, his message runs. Naturally, the Europeans are nervous, especially those on NATO’s eastern border. Don’t blame Trump alone, if you want to blame someone; it was Barack Obama who brought down U.S. forces to some 30,000. During the Cold War, the number was 10 times higher. It was Obama who told the Atlantic: “Free riders aggravate me.” Trump has actually boosted the U.S. military presence in Europe. Nor should we ignore that Europe’s NATO members have been increasing defense outlays since 2014 when Vladimir Putin grabbed Crimea. But money doesn’t buy everything.
In the end, the reason Europe isn’t rising to the moment is that “Europe” does not exist—not as a state and not as a strategic actor that can hold its own among the restive superpowers.
o be sure, the EU has made magnificent strides toward “ever closer union,” as the 1957 Treaty Establishing the European Community envisioned its future. It has installed various accoutrements of a state: a European Parliament, a Court of Justice, a Commission as quasi-executive, a common currency, a growing body of Community law, even integrated battle groups. The EU has “Pesco,” or “Permanent Strategic Cooperation,” the pledge to pool defense resources and contribute combat units for EU missions.
Unfortunately, these feats do not add up to a U.S.E., a United States of Europe. Real power is lodged in the national parliaments and executives. The EU-28 (soon minus Britain) do not an e pluribus unum make.
Modern history knows no example where nation-states voluntarily coalesced into one. The United Kingdom is the product of endless war among the warring tribes of the Isles. Germany’s 25 city-states and kingdoms were fused by “iron and blood” in 1871, to invoke Bismarck’s famous phrase. In the beginning, the Thirteen Colonies did strike a peaceful deal in Philadelphia. But in the end, it took a murderous civil war to fuse North and South into one nation. In those four years, more Americans died than in all wars thereafter.
Unification will not be achieved by committees hashing it out in Brussels. Or by national parliaments emasculating themselves for the sake of the greater European good. To bestride the world as a heavyweight like the United States requires cracking the hard shells of sovereignty, notably in matters of defense and public finance.
Never in our lifetime will this Europe go to war because a majority of member states says so. Nor will elected governments hand over spending and taxation to Brussels—not when their fate at the ballot box hangs on the state of the business cycle. No national parliament will give up the power of the purse, the Holy Grail of democratic governance.
Cracking these shells would require fusing 27 post-Brexit states into one, complete with a supreme legislature like Congress and an elected executive like the U.S. president. Yet power in Europe remains rooted in the European Council representing 27 governments jealously guarding their turfs.
To list such deficits is not to belittle how many chunks of sovereignty the EU has already pried off. The largest is monetary union, which unites 19 of the 27 in the eurozone. Still, the common currency may well have been one bridge too far, as the recurrent crises of the euro testify—first in Greece, now Italy. While the eurozone will continue to muddle through, the ”ever closer union” of the EU as a whole is receding as we speak.
tart with leadership. The “engine” of integration has always been the Franco-German “couple.” This marriage has never been bliss incarnate; today it yokes two governments at odds with each other and their electorates.
Who leads and who follows are the questions that govern all politics. For a few years, Germany’s Angela Merkel was feted as uncrowned empress of Europe. Now she is on the way out, paying the price of opening Germany’s gates to a million-plus Mideast refugees in 2015–16.
As Merkel stumbled, France’s Emmanuel Macron stepped up in a blaze of glamour. His rhetoric was as bold as his ambitions were grandiose. Elected in a landslide, he would make France great again by recasting it and grabbing the helm of the EU.
The nakedness of the new emperor, now in his second year, is visible to all. Like so many French governments before him, his was denuded in the streets of Paris by the usual suspects of French “expressive politics.” The “Yellow Vests” were set off late last year by his “green” fuel tax. In truth, they went to war against “Macronism”—the attempt to loosen up rigid labor markets and fracture ancient group privileges.
It was déja vu all over again—street vs. state. Within three weeks, the government buckled, as it has done so often in the past when fishermen, truckers, farmers, or students went on strike. So the government “postponed” the tax by six months. Having shown their clout, the protestors kept exacting more concessions. Say au revoir to reform and rejuvenation à la Macron.
Merkel was not undone in the streets, but at the ballot box. In the fall, her ruling Christian Democrats were trounced in two critical state elections, while the “Alternative for Germany,” an anti-immigrant upstart on the far right, improved its showing by up to 10 points.
In the national polls, Merkel’s Christian Democrats were down to 29 percent at the beginning of 2019, a deadly drop from the mid-forties of the past. Reading the handwriting, Merkel beat a tactical retreat, resigning as head of her party. In December, the convention replaced her with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a Merkel protégé hailing from the tiny state of the Saarland, where she had served as prime minister. A Maggie Thatcher she is not.
It was an orderly transition, but Merkel may not last to the end of her term in 2021. Either way, say auf Wiedersehen to the legendary stability of Germany, which has gone through only eight chancellors while Italy has burned through 65 governments since the end of World War II.
For decades, Germany was essentially ruled by the center-right and the center-left. The Christian Democrats and Social Democrats either alternated in power or governed in tandem, as they have been during the past nine years. This duopoly is history. Long gone are the balmy days when these two together netted 80 percent of the ballots. If there were a general election today, polls say, they would haul in 43 percent. Their “grand coalition” has shrunk to a “petty coalition.” While the Social Democrats, as elsewhere in Europe, totter on the brink of oblivion, the system has splintered into six parties, two of which represent the radical left and right. Look forward to shaky coalitions and shorter-lived governments in a country that used to be Europe’s rock of ages.
So the Franco-German “couple” is walking on crutches. Vying for leadership, they have never agreed on the what and how of “ever closer union.” Emerging from centuries of absolutist rule, the French have become wedded to the all-providing state. They distrust the free market and look to the government for succor and shelter. This is why the Yellow Vests cut Macron down to size, clamoring for more spending, shorter work weeks, and higher wages. Across the Rhine, the Germans hearken back to the Holy Roman Empire ,where power was spread across myriad kingdoms, cities, and duchies. Especially after 12 years of Nazi totalitarianism, Germans have come to cling to federalism and states’ rights, be it in Europe or at home. Decentralization is as German as Volkswagen and bratwurst. France remains the bastion of centralism.
Macron wants a European budget and a European finance minister to spread the wealth from rich Germany to the stagnating South. With their balanced budget, the Germans naturally insist on fiscal rigor, pushing the members of “Club Med” to get their house in order. This tug-of-war between the (Protestant) North and the (Catholic) South has always bedeviled the EU, mimicking the religious divides of the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. Today, this cleavage is just one among many threats to “ever closer union.” As the world is muscling in, the EU is drifting apart.
rexit is the most blatant symptom of Eurofatigue. The United Kingdom would rather face not-so-splendid isolation than submit to Brussels, and damn the gargantuan costs of defection. For the UK it is not “ever closer,” but simply “no union.”
Meanwhile, Poland and Hungary are marching to the beat of authoritarian nationalism. They will gladly take the goodies—billions in subsidies—from Brussels but refuse to obey its dictates of liberal-democratic virtue.
Italy is in a class of its own. In a historical first, it has voted right-wing and left-wing populists into power. Hostile brothers, the League and the Five Stars are held in harness by “Italy first” and anti-EU resentment. If they don’t shrink the national debt, the eurozone’s largest as a fraction of the GDP, the endless Greek euro crisis will look like a hiccup. With its tiny economy, Greece can be saved. Italy, Europe’s fourth-largest, cannot.
Finally, there is the latter-day “Hanseatic League” that the Dutch are harnessing against the French, now that their natural ally Britain is absconding. Informal members are the Scandinavians, the Baltics, and Ireland. These are fiscally conservative and highly competitive economies. Germany is a silent partner because it is loath to challenge France directly.
So much for the rifts inside. Now look at the wider world where history has not ended. Geopolitics and geoeconomics are back. While Russia grabs land, China pushes its “Belt and Road” across Asia and into Europe. In the tariff wars, President Trump deploys raw power to change the terms of trade in America’s favor. His contempt for Europe, especially for Angela Merkel, is boundless. For him, Europe is a fat mouse too timid even to roar.
The U.S., China, and Russia are rearming as they stake out spheres of influence. Where does that leave those 450 million post-Brexit Europeans with the world’s second-largest GDP? The 21st century does not favor this mighty “civilian power.” Its best weapons, such as commerce, friendly persuasion, and institutionalized conflict resolution, are being blunted. For all the breathtaking advances of our time, the new arena of world politics looks more like the 18th and 19th centuries than the second half of the 20th, the Golden Age of the West.
hen arms buy influence, economic strength trades at a discount. Unless there is a mailed fist beneath the white glove of diplomacy, states will not excel at power politics. Nor will the EU, and then for reasons of psychology rather than lack of clout. Preceded by million-fold slaughter in two world wars, 70 years under the strategic umbrella of the U.S. have set in motion an unprecedented cultural transformation.
Once the Europeans were a race of warriors who conquered the four corners of the world. But the million-fold slaughter that almost led to Europe’s suicide in the 20th century, not to speak of the industrial annihilation of Jews and other “subhumans,” may have cracked its collective soul. The spirit of “Never again!” has overwhelmed the quest for booty, glory, and domination. Heroism is out, discretion and pacificity are the better part of valor—and far less costly to boot.
Maybe Tocqueville was right when he attributed to bourgeois society “that coolness of understanding that renders men comparatively insensible to the violent and poetical excitement of arms [and] quenches the military spirit.” It is a “constant rule that among civilized nations the warlike passions will become more rare and less intense in proportion as social conditions are more equal.” The sage was writing about America, but his prediction fits Western Europe to a T.
The signs abound. You have to look hard for oversized national flags fluttering above gas stations in Europe as they do in the U.S. Once an officer’s career was the quickest way to status and advancement in Europe. Today, the military enjoys about as much prestige as the post office. Soldiering is a job, not a national calling. Only France and Britain boast remnants of an ancient warrior culture. Its values—honor, duty, self-sacrifice—have dwindled in favor of civilian virtues like cooperation and compromise.
How to re-establish moral worth in the face of an unspeakable past—conquest, colonialism, and exploitation, as the catechism of correctness has it? Europe draws righteousness from its new incarnation as a moral superpower that will study war no more. Setting an example as “light unto the nations,” it will teach the world the wisdom of accommodation and rules-bound intercourse and so transmute strife into win-win for all. That’s what “civilian powers” do best; this is where the EU’s great comparative advantage pays off most. Clausewitz, who preached the twinship of force and diplomacy, doesn’t live here anymore.
For decades, acting (and orating) in this manner was a marvelous business model, keeping Europe out of harm’s way and filling its coffers. Today, the model is losing its luster because the cultural transformation depended on a reliable American security guarantee. That pillar is not so sturdy now. As Angela Merkel puts it in the age of Trump, “we have to go some way toward taking our destiny into our own hands.”
Well spoken. Yet Europe’s tragedy is the gulf between fabulous wealth and feeble will, between its glorious past and a future now dimmed by the return of power politics. The new threats are devaluing the EU’s abundant civilian assets: trade and investment, suasion and cooptation. In the benign setting of yore, the Union grew from six to 28 nations. But it would take a “United States of Europe” to play in the great-power league, where force is the ultimate currency of clout.
To make Europe great again, the post-Brexit 27 would have to coalesce into a single state with a strong executive characterized by “decision, activity, secrecy and dispatch,” as Alexander Hamilton famously argued in the Federalist Papers. Alas, with their national histories dating back to the days of Rome, the EU 27 will not replicate the fusion of America’s 13 colonies in our lifetime.
Time is not on their side, not with Vladimir Putin pressing in and Trump threatening to move out. So it will help to buy some insurance by arming and training a credible force embedded in NATO, history’s oldest alliance of free nations. Why NATO? Cold-eyed analysis would impress on both Americans and Europeans what a good deal the alliance has been.
For the Europeans, one big American umbrella is more reliable than lots of little European ones while a single European army remains a beautiful dream. For the United States, it is all about being there. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose 70th birthday is coming up this fall, has spared the U.S. a remake of World Wars I and II, when it first hung back and then had to pay with hundreds of thousands of fallen to restore the balance. Staying in Europe after 1945 was a wondrous blessing; not a single shot was fired in Europe during the Cold War. It is always more economical to be in place than to have to fight your way back in. Try now to dislodge the Russians from Syria.
The point is not to coddle Europe, but to stress America’s well-considered interests. Squeezed by Russia and China, the U.S. would not want to ditch Europe, not with its half a billion people and the world’s second-largest GDP. Even the greatest of powers will not thrive behind the walls of Fortress America. Just like nature, international politics abhors a vacuum, and those who wish the U.S. ill will be only too happy to fill it.
The U.S. would not be doing the Europeans a favor by continuing to extend a credible guarantee. It would be doing what interest and prudence demand in a world where Russia and China want to make America small again. Without its older European cousins, the U.S. would be a lonely giant with a limp. To let go of America’s largest strategic asset would be an act of folly that would not even play in the long term in Trump’s red-state redoubt.